The kid who taught his sister surfing and calculus just flew past Pluto taking photographs.
No, really. Now Hal Weaver has his spacecraft's eye set on an obscure chunk of something farther away in the Kuiper Belt, more than 4 billion miles from Earth.
It might be one of the oldest objects in the galaxy. His high-resolution camera ought to be snapping away at it in 2019.
Weaver, 63, might be the most remarkable Lowcountry native you've never heard of. What scientists can learn from his astounding images of the surface of Pluto and its supermoon Charon will be one of the focuses of NASA's 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference underway this week.
He won't be there. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory research professor just returned to the university from New York City, where he discussed spectrography work he helped lead on the Rosetta, the mission that last September landed probes on a comet nearly 500 million miles from Earth.
Let's not even get into his work with the Hubble space telescope now circling the Earth.
"I am in awe of what he does," said Lisa Weaver, his sister, who works at the College of Charleston. "He is so down to earth. Anyone could have an everyday conversation with him, and until you started talking more about the very technical, you would not presume him to be a 'rocket scientist.'"
Weaver himself is a little in awe of what he's been able to do. The camera aboard the New Horizons spacecraft passed Pluto in 2015 taking photos from 7,800 miles away, a celestial dust-speck of a distance for a dwarf planet some 3 billion miles from Earth.
"It recorded such incredible terrain diversity, in such spectacular fashion we never expected to see," he said. Among the features is a vast, heart-shaped region apparently comprised of nitrogen ice that flows like a glacier and displays geometric patterns like sometimes are seen in mists circulating on a lake on Earth.
Conference literature described the terrain as ranging from ancient, heavily cratered regions to areas being reshaped by forces such as condensation and convection, or storms. Weaver said the surface showed evidence of organic materials, or stuff that was once alive.
None of that was expected. The trip was high-risk and the stakes just as high. The year the spacecraft took off for Pluto, 2006, the International Astronomical Union essentially de-legitimized Pluto by establishing new criteria for designating planets that it didn't meet.
Weaver's team themselves expected to find something that more resembled a billiard ball, he said. "You look at the images we took, it's unquestionably a planet."
The craft rocketed at a never-human-achieved-before speed of 36,000 mph through unknown abyss where colliding with a 1 millimeter particle could have destroyed it. Research teams periodically turned on the equipment to make sure it still worked, and lost contact temporarily with New Horizons as it approached the planet.
Pluto and its atmosphere, it turned out, are very similar to early Earth.
"It helps us to understand better our place (in the universe). Does that exist anywhere else?" Weaver said. "Wherever you have water and an underlying energy source, there's the possibility of life. The first time we find life elsewhere it will dramatically change our perspective. How does that affect our world?"